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Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald joined the Heisman Trophy race following a huge win vs. No. 12 LSU.

The Eye Test: Do we have a real challenger for Alabama’s throne?

Alex Martin Smith

Auburn isn’t ready. LSU isn’t ready. Georgia isn’t ready. Florida isn’t ready. Tennessee isn’t ready. The five teams that were supposed to threaten Alabama’s supremacy in 2017 have done little to show they’re worthy of knocking off the Crimson Tide.

Enter Mississippi State.

The Bulldogs thrashed No. 12 LSU by 30 points on Saturday evening. Tebow-esque quarterback Nick Fitzgerald cemented his Heisman Trophy candidacy with 4 total touchdowns against a Tigers defense that was thought to possess elite potential.

Mississippi State’s defense was porous in 2016, but through three games this season, it’s been a revelation under new coordinator Todd Grantham.

The stars are aligning in Starkvegas. Dan Mullen is pulling off another unforgettable season. Call it Dak 2.0, if you will. And when it’s over, Fitzgerald might have a more impressive résumé than Prescott. Forget the individual award talk for a moment. He might actually have enough talent around him to take down the big, bad Tide.

Every year, it seems we try to identify the team most likely to dethrone Alabama. Most of the time, we’re way off. And there’s a strong chance Mississippi State is a faux contender that beat up on a team — LSU — that’s not nearly as good as its previous ranking indicated. We might just be playing ourselves again.

But there’s also a real chance that MSU is ready to make the SEC West interesting by beating Alabama on Nov. 17. Before Saturday, the Bulldogs had not defeated LSU at home since 1999. They travel to Georgia this coming weekend to do battle with a program they have only beaten once in the past four-plus decades.

If Fitzgerald and Co. pass that test, the bandwagon will double in size. Why not hop on now?

Florida gets legendary moment, zero assurance

As the party of the year broke out around him, Florida coach Jim McElwain looked ready to call it a night. The beleaguered leader could barely muster a smile as CBS reporter Allie LaForce peppered him with questions.

Her final inquiry gave McElwain an opportunity to butter up redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks, who had just thrown a game-winning 63-yard touchdown with no time remaining.

“What did that freshman show you? Maybe that he was a little more like a veteran today?” LaForce asked.

McElwain very nearly rolled his eyes at the thought.

“No,” he said, chuckling. “He showed me he can throw it a long ways.”

Like the rest of people who watched the dumpster fire that was the majority of Florida-Tennessee’s game, McElwain was well aware of his offense’s limitations. Before Franks fired that 63-yard score, he was 17-of-27 for 149 yards yards, 1 touchdown pass and an ugly interception that allowed Tennessee to tie the game at 20-20 in the final minute.

There’s also the fact that Florida was on its way to getting into position for the game-winning field goal when Franks unwittingly ran 27 seconds off the clock. McElwain did his young quarterback no favors, sitting on his two timeouts as the clock ran down to 9 seconds.

Of course, that’s when Franks rolled right, set his feet and unleashed a skyscraper to Tyrie Cleveland for the win.

Florida got the win, but still has plenty to prove. The Gators have a suddenly-tough two-game stretch at Kentucky and home against Vanderbilt upcoming.

Feleipe Franks-touchdown-hail-mary
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‘Gene’ brings the heat

In the minutes after Franks shocked Tennessee, former Auburn coach — and current TV broadcaster — Gene Chizik reportedly brought down the hammer on Butch Jones.

The quote was, unfortunately, a hoax. Chizik never spewed such flames, and all his network colleagues quickly went to Twitter to confirm Chizik never said it.

But it didn’t seem far-fetched as much of the media wondered just how hot Jones’ seat is after a disappointing performance at the Swamp. CBS Sports’ Barrett Sallee, sharply critical of Jones’ tenure on Rocky Top, noted: “Tennessee ran seven plays inside Florida’s 10-yard line on the afternoon. All were passing plays, and one was intercepted. That’s coaching. That’s Jones.”

From Sallee’s CBS colleague Dennis Dodd: “[Jones’ tendency toward dramatic finishes] may end him at Tennessee. A guy who has won nine games in consecutive seasons, still hasn’t won the right nine games.”

From Tennesssean columnist Joe Rexrode: “There are no family-friendly words for Jones’ second-half coaching Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.”

It’s not just the media. Fans are growing awful tired of underachieving.

The SEC East has been Tennessee’s for the taking the past two seasons (especially, especially, especially in 2016). If this fall results in another failed Atlanta bid, that’s three strikes against Jones. And I know this isn’t a baseball website, but y’all know what happens then.

Vanderbilt-Derek Mason-Vanderbilt football
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Vandy in the spotlight (briefly)

Tennessee’s in-state rival has had one heck of a September thus far. Saturday night, Vanderbilt beat No. 18 Kansas State in Nashville for just its second win over a ranked team since October 2013. The win came on the heels of impressive performances at Middle Tennessee State and at home against Alabama A&M.

In short, Derek Mason’s Commodores are — for the first time since his hiring — a legitimate threat to win the SEC East.

Here’s the problem, though: Vandy’s upcoming schedule is nightmarish. Following the KSU win, they have a visit from Alabama (Sept. 23 — haven’t beaten the Tide since 1984), a trip to Florida (Sept. 30 — one win vs. the Gators since 1988) and a visit from Georgia (Oct. 7 — 5-26 against the Bulldogs since 1986).

If the Commodores survive that stretch, they have back-to-back road games at Ole Miss and South Carolina, neither of which will be particularly breezy.

Things that caught our eye in Week 3

  • Florida receiver Tyrie Cleveland caught the game-winning “Hail Mary” vs. Tennessee, then told a reporter he’s never heard of Doug Flutie. Feel old, Gen X’ers.
  • If award voting took place after Week 2, I probably would have given SEC Player of the Year to South Carolina superstar Deebo Samuel. Sadly, he broke his leg against Kentucky, and is expected to miss the remainder of the season.
  • Penn State held a 56-0 lead on Georgia State when the visiting Sun Belt team lined up for a 31-yard field goal. Just as the ball was snapped, the officials blew the play dead; PSU coach James Franklin — winning by 56! — had called a timeout to “ice” the kicker. The successful kick didn’t count, and the follow-up attempt sailed wide right. Happy Valley went nuts.
  • Vince Young and Matt Leinart — stars of the 2006 Rose Bowl — spent time chatting before USC and Texas kicked off Saturday night. Leinart, a Heisman Trophy winner and two-time national champion, will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame this year. He received a spontaneous handshake from USC wideout Deontay Burnett following an overtime touchdown.

  • Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium continued its recently adopted tradition: Waving to patients in the nearby children’s hospital.

  • The Missouri-Kansas rivalry may have been suspended in 2012, but the Tigers and Jayhawks are still competing in other ways. Saturday, they tried to determine which football team is more doomed. Mizzou lost to unranked Purdue by 32 at home. Meanwhile, KU was taken to task by Ohio, falling behind 39-14 at one point in a 42-30 loss. Which program is in worse shape? That’d be Kansas. It’s always Kansas.

Although the Jayhawks punter didn’t celebrate while his team was down by more than four touchdowns.

  • No coach takes #branding more seriously than Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck.

  • This week in kicking miracles: Texas Lutheran’s Tyler Hopkins had his 18-yard field goal blocked … and promptly re-kicked the football through the uprights. The officials allowed it as a successful 3-point field goal try.